Concrete Starship

We worked on a section of the new bridge to give back shadows to the river.

I was lucky to get hired as a day laborer right out of high school. It was a plum job. Lots of applicants. Most of them union.

I remember the first time I walked the span, looking straight down on cormorants flying a few feet above the water.

Some mornings the ground fog was so thick you couldn’t see the river. The bridge rising out of the mist like a concrete starship under construction.

Compound curves the whole way. Twisting around three axes. Each joint a diacritical mark for a story sprung a hundred and forty feet lower on one end.

The bridge has to bend three hundred and ten feet sideways as it crosses— soil problems. The northern abutments flare at the top

like Frank Lloyd Wright’s tapered tree columns in the Johnson wax building, descending like sky grown redwoods to land in a neighborhood

of small cottages, built for papermill workers. No trusswork. No superstructure over the road bed — a pure ribbon.

We knew it would be possible to flip a car off the side, but the angles and momentum would have to be perfect.

Soon after it opened, on a glove-soft night, it came — that rare shadow, the one that leaves a mark on the water.


A crèche of
red hooded
muscle berries
unfolding like kings–
Gaspar and Balthasar,
flanked by Christmas
candles, mirror-doubled
and swelling
to show off
their black
speckled hearts
like the dots in
the red rolls of caps
in the pistols
we fired under
the porch of our
house in Wyoming.
Our ears rang
for hours and the
smell of smoke
stuck to our clothes.

I can still hear
the Jankowski boy
screaming, charging
our position no
thought for himself.
His own unfolding
to come in a fog of
antipsychotic drugs,
aimless hitchhiking
and a thin skirmish line
of mid-winter candles.

I Want to Tell You

The candles
on the dining room table
have burned low.

I like seeing
them gutter and swell,
wax running

I know
it drives you crazy—
forgive me.

I love their
last breaths,
so loose lipped.

Presence of Absence

(After Herman Melville)

It appalls me in some dim and random way.
In nature it enhances beauty, as in pearls or gardenias.
In people, it offers power over others.
In monuments of death, it implies sympathy and light.
In brides, innocence and purity.
In the elderly, a benign benevolence.
To the old Iriquois, it meant the deep winter sacrifice of a sacred dog.
Roman Catholics see in it the Passion of our Lord.
In the vision of St. John, it meant shining robes for the redeemed.

Yet inside this color is a panic in the blood.
Remove some of the kinder associations and combine it
with a terrible object and it magnifies that terror
with a ghastly mildness and a pale dread.
To the shark, the polar bear, the squalls of the Southern ocean
it adds a supernatural and a nameless terror.

The tall pale man of the Eastern European forests
gives the wanderer as much inner darkness as the milk foamed sea
gives the sailor. A young colt in a sleepy Vermont valley
will stamp and snort at a shaken bear skin. Though the colt has
no memories of past violence, it carries an instinctive,
an inherent knowledge of the demonism of the world.

Mystic signs carry these ancestral hints, so to me they must
exist somewhere. Is there a dumb blankness of annihilation
in the distant stars? Or a colorless atheism from which we shrink?
Nature paints the world in a sexual riot of color.
While the paintbrush is colorless, look at its source
long enough and you will receive a blindness that removes
both the world’s beauty and the terror of seeing it.


A carnival of shoes, tracked and true.
  False to travelers who wander aloud,

soft in their thoughts, catatonic in the breakfast sun.
  Shade in the tunnels, the mud-soaked margins,

midway inside the mad and quickened place,
  carried away — a steelpan artist!

Scientist of twing: ba-da-ting, ba-da-ting—relief
  throbs the green and tiled halls.

Cornered by Trinidad, alert and bible high,
  below him a mutt and a Slurpee cup.

Plates of bystanders—a Greek salad of hurry.
  Calmly the former merchant marine,

deserted, he calls out the chorus—sublingual sounds,
  dog eared by feet and the rumbling train.


Go with the loud, the sweet, the high
Ones. It doesn’t mean a thing,
On the slick hardpan of Nazareth’s curves,
To bounce the brickyard wall–

Or Portland for the G I Joe,
Under the mussel clouds,
If in first place beneath the stands,
Your engine throws a rod.

Oversteer, push, in dirty or clean
Air, down force is your hot friend.
It’s bump and run to spray the wine,
Or it’s grenade and catch the fence.

Book Review: Republic Cafe by David Biespiel

My review of a fine new book-length poem by David Biespiel was just published in the May issue of Plume.

Republic Café is David Biespiel’s sixth book of poetry. It is arguably his finest work. Loosely based on Alain Resnais’ romantic drama film Hiroshima Mon Amour, this book-length poem borrows the movie’s main storyline and recasts it as a shape-shifting Noh play, presented in 54 numbered sections. The story follows two lovers over a 36-hour period as they meet and have an affair in the days following 9/11.


Republic Café
David Biespiel
University of Washington Press
$19.95 hardcover
January 2019